Part-time Detectives Find Problems in Medical, Scientific Research
A major cancer hospital and research center recently announced it is asking for withdrawals or corrections to at least 37 research papers.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston is taking action after its research included false images.
The cancer hospital is connected with Harvard University’s medical school. Harvard’s last president, Claudine Gay, recently left her position after being accused of plagiarism. Plagiarism is when a person claims someone else’s work as their own.
In the Dana-Farber case, a blogger from Wales in Britain, said the cancer center published documents that had manipulated images. Sholto David is a 32-year-old blogger who investigates scientific reports in his free time.
On January 2, David wrote on his blog that he found suspicious images in 30 papers published by four Dana-Farber scientists, including top leaders Laurie Glimcher and William Hahn. He said some of the images made the research look stronger. The papers discussed how cells work. Another documented samples of bone marrow from human volunteers.
When did the problem surface?
Similar investigators found problems with some of the Dana-Farber papers and pointed them out on a website called PubPeer. Reporters from Harvard’s student newspaper started writing about the problems on January 12.
Dana-Farber answered the news coverage by saying it had already been looking into the problems. On January 22, the center said it asked for six of the papers to be retracted, or withdrawn from publication, because of problems. It also asked for corrections in 31 other papers.
Dr. Barrett Rollins is the research integrity officer at Dana-Farber. He said the center and its scientists took “prompt and decisive action in (most) cases” that David pointed out.
Community of “sleuths”
David is not the only person who studies scientific research and looks for errors. Elisabeth Bik is a microbiologist in California. She has been looking at journals and papers for 10 years. Based on her work over 1,000 articles have been pulled back. Over 1,000 have been corrected and 153 times journals have printed their concerns about previously published work.
She has seen manipulated images of bacteria, cells and more.
Bik wrote about her work in a paper published by the American Society for Microbiology in 2016. “Science should be about finding the truth,” she said.
Bik does get some money for her work. Some people who like her work subscribe to a journal she writes. She earns about $2,300 per month for the work she does. David said he earns just over $200 a month for his work.
Why do they do it?
Ivan Oransky is an expert on the science sleuths. He teaches medical journalism at Columbia University in New York City. He said some of the detectives use software tools to look for problems in scientific writing. Many do not use their names when they write about their findings.
Oransky said the sleuths “want science to do and be better.” He said they are upset that people in publishing and at universities do not seem interested in correcting mistakes. Some of the bloggers are worried that the number of people who trust science is falling.
Bik said the problem that leads to false research is that many doctors and scientists feel pressure to get published. And they make mistakes because they are in a hurry.
Oransky, the journalism teacher at Columbia, said pressure to publish means: if the images do not match the story the paper is trying to tell, “you beautify them.”
Scientific journals look at errors brought to their attention but do not often do a public investigation. They keep the process quiet and then release their decision. Usually, they will ask for a correction or withdraw the paper.
Some journals told The Associated Press they were looking into the issues that David raised.
Words in This Story
manipulate –v. to change in a way that is meant to affect people in a certain way or to deceive people
suspicious –adj. causing concern that there is something wrong
sample –n. a small amount of a substance that is taken for study or research
integrity –n. the quality of being honest, fair, complete or good
prompt –adj. quick, done in a timely way
sleuth –n. someone who looks for clues to solve crimes or problems
journalism –n. the job of finding, writing and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, TV and radio
beautify –v. to make something beautiful or to increase its beauty